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Minnesota, Wisconsin lawmakers spar over truck restrictions

No one is closing, or even planning restrictions on, the Stillwater Lift Bridge.

But things could change for motorists traveling the two blocks of pavement between the bridge and Main Street in downtown Stillwater.

That was the latest message Minnesota and Wisconsin officials exchanged Friday morning at Stillwater City Hall.

About two dozen Minnesota and Wisconsin leaders met for discussion on truck traffic through downtown Stillwater, attempting to come up with a solution to the trucks that rumble through the historic district.

While bills restricting lift bridge traffic to 26,000 pounds remain in play in both Minnesota houses, their authors said they are turning their focus to length restrictions.

Sen. Ray Vandeveer (R-Forest Lake) and Sen. Kathy Saltzman (DFL-Woodbury) said revised legislation could restrict trucks to 43 feet in length, thus banning most semi trucks, which are at least 53 feet long. Smaller delivery trucks would not be affected, they said.

To emphasize the point, Rep. Matt Dean (R-Dellwood), sketched a map on a white board in the training room in which the group met, showing that a proposed length restriction would only affect the two blocks of Chestnut Street immediately adjacent to the bridge.

The restrictions, the legislators said, would protect pedestrians and property from large semi trucks that cross the bridge from Wisconsin. Such trucks often turn south onto Main Street in Stillwater, before heading into the metropolitan area via Highway 36.

The turning trucks are becoming dangerous, and police stops of trucks traveling through the area have documented many safety violations, Saltzman said, adding that many larger, over-the-road carriers use the route to avoid a weigh station on Interstate 94.

"It's become clear to us that there was a reason they were going through Stillwater," said Mayor Ken Harycki, who was also in attendance. "We're having an interstate routed through our town."

"There's no good reason for an interstate truck traveling multi states to cross (the St. Croix River) at Stillwater," added Dean.

The increased truck traffic also endangers the bridge, Saltzman said. It has been shut down from accidents twice in the past year. And when the bridge is shut down from vehicles, primarily trucks, hitting it, it means a major headache for those who use the bridge to commute and conduct business, Saltzman said. And it could shorten the lifespan of the bridge, which is now slated for replacement in 2013.

Commerce, or safety?

But Wisconsin officials who attended the meeting, including Rep. Kitty Rhoades, Hudson Mayor Dean Knudson and Town of St. Joseph Supervisor Kevin Moelter, opposed restrictions on interstate commerce they said should flow unfettered.

"You have to separate commerce and nuisance," Knudson told the group.

Saltzman disagreed, saying truck traffic poses a safety issue. As many as 70 percent of trucks counted in a police enforcement sweep violated safety and equipment regulations.

"The issue is the trucks are coming from Wisconsin and you are not doing enforcement," she said. "We're having to do the enforcement over here" of the trucks passing through.

The Minnesota legislators are further requesting that Wisconsin officials post signs on their side of the bridge, warning truckers that a restricted roadway lays ahead and advising them to seek other routes.

But re-routing trucks -- either through Hudson or Roberts -- would raise the cost of doing business locally, Rhoades said.

"How many of these trucks are really doing local business?" Saltzman said, adding that the Minnesota Department of Transportation is ready to provide permits to local truckers who do business directly across the river.

What about a new bridge?

Rhoades questioned if plans for a new Stillwater bridge could diminish a Sierra Club lawsuit or garner additional bridge funds.

Currently, the lawsuit is not delaying preliminary work on the bridge, Saltzman said, and the Minnesota Department of Transportation is proceeding as if there were no pending lawsuit.

Further, Minnesota lawmakers are doing everything they can on the state and federal level to spur the funding that will make a new river crossing a reality, she said.

Saltzman promised to update the attendees in a week, as the Minnesota Legislature is moving toward its Constitutional adjournment date of May 18.